Commentary

Football must address brain trauma to survive

What I’d tell my 16-year-old self before the 1972 season about the game I loved

August 25, 2022 12:01 am

Players in a November 2019 football game between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Tomorrow, the first rituals of fall and a fresh school year will renew themselves as boys (and some girls) across Virginia snap the chin straps to their helmets, dig their cleats into the turf and start a new season of high school football.

For me, the nostalgia gets so thick I could spread it with a butter knife. Football was all I wanted to do when I was the age of these kids who will take the field for the opening games of 2022 on Friday night.

I was fortunate enough to do it longer than many and play the game at a respectable level – Ole Miss of the Southeastern Conference. I got a college degree out of it. Much as I once dreamed of playing the game on Sundays, my skill set was not NFL caliber, and I realized that in time to get serious about academics and a future as a journalist.

So pardon me while I bite the hand that fed me: football must change itself radically to survive.

If you follow the sport at all – or, perhaps more notably, if you follow neuroscience – you are familiar with “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” an insidious, irreversible degenerative condition linked to brain trauma from the same type of blows to the head that are inherent to American football and boxing, to name two conspicuous causes from sports.

Stories like this one about the late Ray Perkins – one of Johnny Unitas’s favorite receivers as a Baltimore Colt and later head coach of the NFL’s New York Giants, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his alma mater, the Alabama Crimson Tide – tend to make the story real for football fans.

But when you learn that a former teammate and old friend is in the same twilight struggle that contributed to Perkins’ demise and those of many other former football players of a variety of ages, it becomes personal.

If I knew then – the 1970s – what I know today about CTE, which essentially hollows out vast expanses of its victims brains over time, I might not have risked playing the game I loved and still follow devotedly in spite of myself. If I could, the 66-year-old me writing these words would zoom back in time half a century and tell the 16-year-old me, about to start my final high school season, that the game’s not worth the risk.

My answer is equivocal because I doubt my younger self would have listened to the creaky, cautious, old gray man offering him hard-learned decades of insights. Such admonitions hold little currency among testosterone-fueled boys that age who believe they can run unscathed through a brick wall.

That feeling of being 10 feet tall and bulletproof is why we played the game as recklessly as we did – with players far larger, faster, stronger and more violent than than our fathers, in more primitive, less protective gear, had been. That sense of invincibility was abetted by advances in headgear and equipment design, particularly unbreakable fiberglass helmets with shatterproof, steel-reinforced face masks that allowed players to use their faces as battering rams, heedless of the devastating consequences that the shock from such crashes causes inside the cranium.  Such blows would have been unfathomable a generation earlier to players who wore leather helmets sans facemasks and were taught to block and tackle with their shoulders.

My freshman season in college, we were explicitly instructed to aim the middle of our face masks like guided missiles between the numbers on the ball carrier’s jersey (the one part of his body he can’t juke) and explode through the target with the force of our whole bodies. There was a phrase for it: “Bow your neck and stick your nose in there.”

The results, even in practice, were predictable. Some guys were cold-cocked. Others saw stars and were disoriented. We laughed it off when a defensive player who “had his bell rung” stumbled into the offensive team’s huddle in practice.

My worst bell-rung moment came in a 1977 game against Alabama in Birmingham. I was a center, the guy who had to snap the ball to a punter about 13 yards behind me in eight-tenths of a second or less, then run downfield and try to tackle the world-class sprinter who catches the punt. On this hot early September night, Ole Miss’s punter, Jim Miller, boomed a high, hanging kick late in the game, and I had zeroed my facemask in on Tide All-American and eventual All-Pro Tony Nathan, convinced that he either had to duck out of bounds or run … straight into me and my oncoming face mask. 

What I didn’t know was that another Bama All-American and future All-Pro, Barry Krauss, was sprinting downfield to block for Nathan and had me in his crosshairs. 

By the time I awoke flat on my back on the Legion Field Astroturf, Nathan had run the ball about 60 yards in the other direction. The stadium lights spun like a merry-go-round. The roar of the huge Alabama crowd sounded tinny and far-away, as though heard over a car radio. I couldn’t get air back in my lungs. The rest of our blowout loss was a blur.

Would I be more mentally agile now had it not been for all those hits? I’ll never know. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed by an autopsy.

In film review the next afternoon where the coaches dissected our drubbing, I saw the hit from a pressbox view and thought I resembled a dog that had blundered onto a freeway in front of an 18-wheeler. From the point of contact to the spot where I came to rest, I traveled about 12 feet, most of it in the air.

“Damn, Lewis,” said an assistant coach, who reran the film forward and backward repeatedly, “I never saw anybody fly that far without a boarding pass.”

I think about that and lesser blows I absorbed and inflicted during my dozen youthful seasons playing varied levels of organized tackle football. It bothers me when I can’t recall a name right on the tip of my tongue, when I walk into a room and momentarily forget why I came in there, or when I’m writing and a word or fact doesn’t fall into place as quickly as it once did.

Is it a normal part of aging? Would I be more mentally agile now had it not been for all those hits? I’ll never know. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed by an autopsy.

What I do know is this: I posted the link to the aforementioned Perkins article on social media recently and one of the comments came from a beloved fellow member of my 1973 freshman football class at Mississippi. It was a devastatingly honest and plaintive revelation that he is dealing with some of the symptoms that bedeviled Perkins: depression, anxiety, fractured relationships, to name a few. To numb the brain, he wrote, he used alcohol.

It broke my heart.

There have been rules changes at all levels of the sport to outlaw using the helmet as a weapon, to penalize blows to the head and eject players from the game who commit them, and to mandate that players medically diagnosed with concussions be withheld from contact until the brain injury has healed, even if it takes weeks. Football has made grudging, incremental gains, but brain trauma is still far too common in the sport. The Virginia High School League has its own guidance for concussion protocols.

My heart would mourn the loss of the matchless autumnal magic that to me has always been football, especially at the high school and collegiate levels.

But my advice to kids across Virginia on the eve of tomorrow’s season-opening kickoffs: until the game drastically reduces or eliminates the devastating blows to the head that are commonplace among ever larger, faster and stronger athletes, it’s not worth the risk.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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